The thing about punts is that no matter how high and far you kick them, the ball always turns nose down eventually and falls to earth. And so do the punters.
But in the fractions of seconds of difference between how long the ball stays aloft and the short increments of distance it travels before landing, in those tiny measurements is the difference between being a punter in the NFL and merely wanting to be one.
For Ken Parrish, a free agent from East Stroudsburg, Pa., who signed a non-guaranteed contract with the Eagles yesterday, all the time invested in four years of chasing this career culminated in four exhibition-game punts in 2007. Otherwise, it has been a tryout here, a tryout there, sticking with it, giving it up, going back to it, and, yesterday, another moment on the green grass of an NFL field.
You don't get much closer to the dream than that, but Parrish knows the difference between getting on the field and staying on it is as fickle and elusive as the ticking of the stopwatch and the grim report of the yard markers.
"It really takes a lot of mental discipline. You get people all the time that are on you, saying, 'You don't got it.' It's always in your head," Parrish said yesterday. "It's a big mental game. Even if you have the ability, you have to be right upstairs."
Parrish will turn 25 next month and won't say this is his last try, but he came back for this attempt only after a lot of deliberation and doubt. He worked for eight months as an officer with the Stroud Area Regional Police, where his father, William, serves as a captain, before deciding in January to return to training.
After all that, he is now a member of the Philadelphia Eagles organization, even if earning that designation is a lot easier in May than it is in September. The Eagles already have a punter in Sav Rocca, and even though he was barely ranked in the top 20 for NFL punters in 2008, he is the incumbent.
"I'd have to tape my shoes to the ground [if I made the team]," Parrish said. "Just walking into the locker room this morning and seeing an Eagles helmet that is mine is something special."
Parrish was a fan of the team growing up, even though soccer was the sport he pursued. As a senior in high school at Stroudsburg South, not entirely happy with his role on the soccer team, he decided to try out as a punter after not one but two of the football team's punters were injured and out of action.
"I said this has to be a sign," Parrish said.
He kicked three balls for the football coach, whose punting depth chart was getting a little thin, and was given the job for the rest of the season. Parrish punted for most of the last half of the season and impressed the East Stroudsburg University coach enough to earn an invitation to try out for the team if he enrolled.
"Once I went to football, I never looked back," Parrish said.
He punted for four years for East Stroudsburg, making the all-PSAC team as a junior and senior, consistently averaging more than 40 yards per punt. After that, Parrish decided to give professional football a shot - and he's still trying.
Parrish didn't get drafted and didn't get a job in the 2006 season, but he stuck with it. He was signed by the San Francisco 49ers in 2007 and went through all of training camp and the exhibition season, getting into three games and getting off the only four professional punts of his career. They were good ones but not good enough to unseat established starter Andy Lee.
The 2007 season turned into the 2008 season, and he had a couple of one-day workouts, with the Patriots and the Eagles, and that was the point when he thought it was time to put his sociology/criminal justice degree to use.
"I came to realize I was going to put the cleats down. I had given it a good run," said Parrish, who went to work for the police department and intended to stay there until Paul Assad, a kicking and punting coach who had previously worked with Parrish, gave him another call.
"He said, 'You're young. You've got the ability,' " Parrish said. "But he said if you want another shot at this, you've got to make full dedication. You can't be a cop during the day and train at night."
Parrish and his family talked it over for a couple of weeks before Parrish decided to move to Modesto, Calif., where Assad is based, and live like a hermit while he trained as hard as he could. He not only worked on punting but also on kickoffs, placekicks, and holding for placekicks.
Maybe the payoff is short-term, but there has been a payoff. It came yesterday as Ken Parrish's punts arced over the field at the NovaCare Complex, and as some of the balls hung up there as if suspended before turning lazily and dropping deep down the field.
Those were NFL punts, and, for the time being, Parrish was the NFL punter striking them. A lot of things have to go right between now and September, but Parrish knows he is close this time. So close.